MY BEST FRIEND POLLY IS TOO YOUNG TO DIE. WE’LL FIGHT THIS CANCER TOGETHER NO MATTER WHAT IT TAKES
KATHERINE I can’t pinpoint exactly when I first met Polly, but I do remember my initial impression being that she was very pretty and had a great voice. It was around 2001, and I was finishing my four-year degree at the Royal Academy of Music in London. To earn some extra cash, I’d set up a little business as a vocal coach and Polly was one of my pupils. She was part of a girl band trying to secure a recording contract and they hired me for some extra tuition. All the girls were bubbly and fun, but Polly and I clicked straight away. We’d go out partying and clubbing, and back then we didn’t have a care in the world.
It must have been a year or so later that I got my own record deal. Polly’s band had fizzled out after a split with its management, but she couldn’t have been more thrilled for me. My world changed almost overnight and that’s when I really began to value our friendship. Polly is very protective, loyal and truthful and I could trust her to tell me if something wasn’t a good idea.
As my life went into orbit, she kept me grounded. I was travelling a lot, but we emailed and texted — I knew I could call her any time and she could do the same with me.
I was on tour in December 2005 when she rang to say that she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer. She didn’t look or sound ill — it was just unbelievable. And of course the word ‘cancer’ frightens the life out of me because I had watched my father die of lung cancer when I was 15. But he had been nearly 70, and Polly was just 24. She was too young; she had too much to live for.
My head was spinning, but without realising it, you draw on your past experience at times like that. I had observed how other people had behaved around my mum. Not everybody knows what to say when it comes to cancer, and sometimes they choose to say nothing rather than risk saying the wrong thing. But that silence can be frightening and isolating. My mum had needed people who were going to be there for her, and that was what Polly needed, too. So I told her we were going to deal with this, whatever it took.
Witnessing her go through surgery, then chemotherapy and radiotherapy was horrendous. She moved back to her parents’ home and I’d go up to see her there whenever I could.
With that first round of treatment she didn’t lose her hair, but she was told there was a strong chance the radiation would send her body into early menopause. She has always wanted to have children, so that was a bitter blow. Polly has never had a ‘poor me’ mentality. She’s fought her cancer head on, completely overhauling her diet and lifestyle. We both believe passionately in the power of the mind and I’m convinced her can-do approach played a huge role in her initial recovery. The treatment worked and for more than three years she was cancer-free. But then, in 2010, she found a lump in her neck. It was a secondary tumour and this time her oncologist told her that although she could have more treatment, the cancer was ultimately incurable. She called me from the hospital with the news. Neither of us cried. We were too stunned For a while after that second diagnosis, Polly decided to refuse conventional treatment and that petrified me. But she explained that she had felt so unwell with chemotherapy and radiotherapy the first time and, having researched the effects of nutrition on cancer and the benefits of meditation, she wanted to give those a try. I realised my job was to respect her decision and back her.
Polly has turned her own experiences into an incredibly positive force. The book she has co-written on coping with cancer is just what I wish I’d been able to turn to when my father became ill. The other day my hairdresser started talking about how she follows Polly on Twitter and swears by her recipes. When I told her Polly was my best friend, she couldn’t believe it. So I might be the one with celebrity status, but Polly is the true star.
In the showbusiness world I occupy much of the time, everything can become magnified and slightly fake, but when I feel things getting ridiculous, all I have to do is think of Polly. When I ran the London Marathon this year (for Macmillan Cancer Support) and pulled a tendon in my knee after the first hour, it was thinking of Polly that kept me going. My discomfort was temporary; she is constantly pushing through pain boundaries.
There are a lot of things I can’t do for Polly, but the one thing I can give her is normality. She comes to stay with me and we’ll get glammed up just like old times and go out for dinner or to a concert, then we’ll have a night in, watching box sets. Most of the time, Polly manages to be amazingly upbeat, but recent test results were terribly upsetting and we had a few very black days. I wanted to tell her it would all be okay but that’s not what she needs to hear. You have to keep it true, so the only thing I can say as her best friend is that I love her and, whatever happens, I’ll be here for her.
POLLY Outwardly these days, I am unrecognisable from the Polly that Katherine first met — and she has changed pretty radically, too. But the chemistry that cemented our friendship more than a decade ago is still there beneath the surface. We’re both ambitious and driven, but at the same time we’re chilled. That is why we understand what makes each other tick.
My early 20s were all about chasing my dreams and having a good time. Like Katherine, I come from a stable and loving family, but one that has no connections with showbusiness; my parents run an agricultural company. When, after leaving school, I told them I wanted to try to become a professional singer, they backed me all the way. I moved to London and did a year at a performing-arts school before joining a girl band. Our management company hired Katherine to bring our voices on and, although she was our teacher, it was also clear she was a party girl like us! After her lessons, we would go for a few drinks, then clubbing till 3 or 4am. The band eventually fizzled out, but Katherine became a permanent fixture in my life.
Katherine’s success came out of the blue. It was obvious from the moment we met that she had an incredible voice, and a friend who saw her perform suggested she make a demo tape. Months later, she was offered a record deal and suddenly her face was on billboards and TV, which was weird but wonderful. She started travelling a lot, but was always in touch by email or text, and whenever she was back in town, we would get together. In late 2005, I started to feel unwell. I was tired all the time and putting on weight, which I thought was probably down to eating badly, drinking too much and not looking after myself. I went for a check-up and had a long- overdue smear test and that was when my world imploded: I had a 3cm malignant tumour on my cervix, which had spread to the surrounding lymph nodes.
My mum was with me for the diagnosis, and we drove home crying, speechless with shock. I told my family, then texted Katherine. She called straight away. She was clearly upset, but she didn’t fall apart. She said that I was not to worry and that we would get through this; her calmness filled me with confidence.
I had keyhole surgery to remove 13 lymph nodes from my pelvic area, followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy to shrink the cancer on my cervix. It was awful.
I spent most of the time with my head down the toilet or asleep. I didn’t really want to see anyone, but Katherine was always there at the end of the phone when I needed cheering up. She is a great raconteur — but sensitive, too — and she knew just how to take my mind off things.
By mid-2006, the tumour had gone and I started to get my life back. But having cancer had changed everything: it became vital to me to make what I did worthwhile. I remember one of my first public-speaking engagements at a fundraising event in Cambridge. I was very nervous but Katherine drove all the way up from London in horrific traffic to be there for me. She is my biggest supporter and I know there is nothing she wouldn’t do for me.
Once you recover from cancer, it is easy to convince yourself that it was just a blip that you have overcome. The shock when it returned in 2010 was one of my darkest moments. Again, Katherine was among the first people I called. Telling people you have cancer is exhausting. In one sense, you feel more upset for them than yourself because you know it must be so hard for them to see what you are going through. Katherine doesn’t offer any platitudes — there’s too much honesty between us for that. But she does make me feel that I will always be all right — with or without cancer.
In a way, I’ve turned my cancer into a career. I qualified as a holistic health coach, devised my own recipes, co-wrote a book on living with cancer and have contributed to numerous articles and TV programmes. So, although having cancer has been tough, I wouldn’t be who I am without it.
I don’t try to impose my diet on Katherine, although I have tried to wean her off Diet Coke (she says it’s her one vice!). Mostly, when we get together, our priority is having a good time. We’re both girly girls — we love to share clothes and make-up and can never resist some luxury pampering; she took me to a spa after my last course of chemotherapy.
Right now, I’m coming to terms with the fact that the cancer is back in my lungs. I’ve had a long cry and a big sulk, but I am over that and I’m cracking on with my to-do list. I lost my long dark hair last year as a result of my treatment, and normally, when I go out or have my picture taken, I reach for one of my wigs. But Katherine has been telling me that I am gorgeous just as I am. She believes that I should be proud of the way I look and embrace it as a statement of what I have been through.
That’s why, in the photograph for this article, you are seeing the genuine me. As always, I treasure Katherine’s feedback, and it feels great to be keeping it real.
For more from Polly, visit pollynoble.com; The Cancer Journey by Dr Pam Evans, Polly Noble and Nicholas Hull- Malham, with foreword by Katherine Jenkins, is available from thecancerjourneybook.com
Forever friends Polly, 31, and Katherine, 33, have been best friends since 2001. Far left: Katherine with her dance partner, Mark Ballas, on last year’s Strictly Come Dancing. Left: The girls in 2010